Shrikes: 1.5 Ounces of Death from Above

Josh VanBrakle Monday, 17 April 2017

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Last week I wrote about hawthorn shrubs and how valuable they are to wildlife, especially birds. But in that discussion, I didn’t have a chance to talk about one of the most impressive wildlife interactions with hawthorn: its use by shrikes.

If you saw a shrike sitting on a fence post or power line, you’d probably think it was just another songbird, albeit one with a head that looked a little too big for its puny, smaller-than-a-robin body.

But you’d be wrong. Because while shrikes might look and sing like any other songbird, they are 1.5 ounces of pure, unfiltered death from above.

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Looks cute, doesn’t it? But this loggerhead shrike is a powerhouse predator in meadows and shrublands. Photo credit: Dave Menke, USFWS

Shrikes are predators. During warmer months they focus on insects, but as the weather cools they will catch and kill a wide variety of critters: frogs, lizards, voles, mice, other birds, and even snakes are all on the menu.

You’ll most often spot shrikes on powerlines or fence posts in open country, where they survey for possible prey. When they spot something they want to eat, they dive onto it and deliver a killing or paralyzing blow to the back of the neck with their sharp, oversized beaks.

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Shrikes like this northern shrike seek out high perches where they can get a good view of the open country (with all its tasty snacks) below them. Photo credit: Dave Menke, USFWS

Where does the hawthorn come in? Shrikes are tiny. They don’t have room for talons like larger birds of prey have. To hold their prey still while they eat it, they impale their victims on hawthorn thorns (among other sharp objects, including barbed wire). They’ll impale more prey than they can eat, creating morbid larders for times when food is scarce, like winter. The video below from Nat Geo Wild shows this behavior in action.

Impaling your victims on spikes and displaying them to the neighborhood may sound barbaric, but for shrikes, it’s a turn on. Female shrikes are attracted to males that have large larders, because it shows they’re successful hunters.

As impressive as shrikes are, they’re in trouble. Their staple foods include farm pests like grasshoppers and mice. Unfortunately, that means they’re exposed to the chemicals we spray to get rid of those pests. Because shrikes are so small, it doesn’t take much of those pesticides to build up in their bodies and kill them. Shrikes have also lost a lot of their old open hunting territory to development. The loggerhead shrike is listed as a threatened or endangered species in several states, and they’ve been proposed for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.

You can help these tiny predators in a couple ways. Maintaining some open, young woods with hawthorns on your land will give shrikes a place to hunt and set up larders. Most important, though, reducing your use of insecticides (especially in fields) will help protect shrikes from the devastating effects these chemicals can have.

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